Over at the merchandise stall, I was leafing through the Organ stock of colour-splashed vinyl and obscure demo tapes – a typically eclectic, magical crop from bands with unknown names, complex influences and musical agendas ignored elsewhere (people were concentrating on Oasis’ gobby bloat, and on the sorry disintegration of The Stone Roses). It was then that I was collared by an earnest young German drummer called Claas Sandbothe: wiry limbs and granny glasses, a schoolboy’s fringe, a grinful of persistent little teeth. He tried to talk me into buying something by his band, Podsdarapomuk; an enthusiastic rave about it from Marina at ‘Organ’ clinched the deal. So I bought Claas’ band’s EP, and it just knocked me out.
Ten days later, and I’m in a pub cellar in Islington as the group takes the stage. Podsdarapomuk turn out to be five young gentlemen-longhairs in suits and ties; German-born (hailing from an out-of-the-way little town near Stuttgart) but London-based (up near Leyton, home to many an intriguing left-field band of late). They look like a young undertaker’s convention. They grin shyly, and sound like……well, hell, we really are onto something here. Imagine a band with the nervous jazzy edge and contemporary noisy indie-cum-art-rock punch of dEUS, but which also sounds like every period of King Crimson from 1969 to 1996 all rolled into one; apparently taking its melodic cues from Gentle Giant and its double-back musical bungee-jumping from Mr. Bungle or Primus, and stirring in more than a smidgin of John Zorn. That’s what we have here – something complex, wearing its hungry tonal erudition on its sleeve.
But don’t expect wackiness or calisthenics; and while there’s a strong dose of prog to the band, it’s the crepuscular kind. While Podsdarapomuk may have left home, they’ve also brought it with them – trailing sombre Germanic influences, their music prowls rather than jiggles. It has a peculiar, rickety-ghost-house unease to it. Studied, grotesque expressionism wells through the lyrics – images of puppets, of ships in peril, of flowers and beautiful paintings about to have huge, horrible shadows cast over them. Elusive, sinister pictures are etched by the beautiful haunted wail of Daniel Klemm, which rooftop-hops over Lars Puder’s sinewy bass, Klaas’ stalk-and-pat drumming and the dual punch of clawing guitars from brooding main tunesmith/spine-provider Thorsten Pachur and his sweeter foil Christian Schmidt. Debra Scacco (one of London’s art-school journeywomen), guests on flute, offering a sunny smile and journeying melodies which seem to follow their own sweetly oblivious path on top of the raging electric music underneath.
They’re scrupulously polite and smiling throughout: solicitously ensuring that we’re comfortable before they tear into our eardrums. A Dream & Rage In A Cage teeters briefly on Daniel’s eerie chant before the band plunge down into concerted action and a succession of metallic talon feints, as they were trying to blowtorch and harrow fresh life King Crimson’s ‘VROOOM’ via Captain Beefheart restlessness. Heavy jazz-electric riffage ransacks the room on A Fool’s Smile, like a threesome of John McLaughlin, Fred Frith and Hendrix turned bad, all stalking each other with Bowie knives. The punks in the room are confused and sulking. The little knot of proggies present are jamming themselves up near the front to drink it all in. They get it. Crimson-like, the Pods alternate passages of dreamlike contemplation with surges of magnificently tangled art-rock splurge.The effect is a bit like unscrewing the back of a magnificent antique clock, only for the clockwork to burst out and ambush you in a chaotic explosion of precision parts. Torn Puppet Without Hands Nor Tongue tumbles into grungy post-Fripp shapes, lunging haphazardly over Daniel’s slice’n’dice vocals and the bebop-y spine of Claas and Lars’ rhythms. On the hunched, hanging Make The King Laugh ( which sometimes sounds like the Shulman brothers soundtracking ‘Twin Peaks’ by way of stuttering trip hop), Christian adds to the unsettling shimmer by tricking alien insect-calls out of his guitar with his slide and the jack-plug.
Podsdarapomuk close the set with the comparative calm of Is It? – a spindled and vulnerable bit of near-acoustica which, again, is reminiscent of Gentle Giant, but which also has the ravaged prayer-feeling of Kurt Cobain. On the final whispering, jazzy chord, it’s as if a door has shut on a world of ever-so-slightly dangerous wonder: one you know you’ll soon want to open again.
Two months and four gigs later… It’s January 1997, and I’m back at the Hope & Anchor watching a group that’s evolving at a frightening speed. Personally, they’re still as polite and amiable as ever, still given to mild surreal humour and little comedies of manners. (In a nod to ‘Don’t Look Back’, Daniel is now holding up cards with the song titles printed on them). In contrast, Podsdarapomuk’s mutable music seems about as stable as nitro-glycerine these days. Watching it go off is a rare thrill. Sometimes the band’s music explodes in a jagged flash of brightness: sometimes it’s just an ominous smoke-cloud rolling out from the stage, filled with glowing cinders and embers.There’s plenty of new material. The chippy guitar intro of Waiting For God leads into a mating of jazzy-walking with Beefheart word-slicing, and even if you could brush this off as being a little shapeless and jammy, they rock you back on your heels with the following I’m Your Dog, a blistering blast that could have come off the most ferocious moments of ‘Exposure’ via The Jesus Lizard. Another new song swerves along like a sprinter weaving through a minefield, Thorsten and Christian morse-coding their guitars over the kind of skittish body-blocking drum patterns that’d make Bill Bruford weep with joy. Later, they’ll be telling me that they’ve been saving every penny to catch Bob Berg gigs at Ronnie Scott’s: that they’ve been studying with Talvin Singh, and listening to Portishead.
It’s clear that their studies and their omnivorous hunger is flourishing into new creative heights. Most evidently, the restless electric jazz that was always percolating deep down in the Podsdaramomuk sound is starting to flood up now, raising the boats and crowding in at the windows. Songs are evolving – Make The King Laugh has somehow deepened, added layers of delirium and almost become a new genre of dub-prog. When A Dream & Rage In A Cage makes a reappearance, it’s been seductively greased and funked-up; Torn Puppet Without Hands Nor Tongue has become tighter, fiercer. Another new piece, Biscuit Murder Blues, is full of forbidding Bark Psychosis jazz-guitar swells, and effortlessly morphs from Daniel’s sleazeball lounge-lizard singing to frenetic pogo-punk in an eyeblink.
They finish up with the tap-dancing metal-mathcore of Little Bombs, with a shriek of John Coltrane saxophone flown in on tape. I finish up with a dawning belief that Podsdarapomuk could go anywhere from here. Unfortunately, it looks as if it’s going to be Berlin – they’re already planning for the end of their London sojourn, and we’ll only have them until the middle of the year. It’ll take us that long to remember how to pronounce their name properly. Perhaps we should spend the time appreciating what we’ve got, while we have it.